Saturday, April 26, 2014
The Laughing King Lear
About thirty years ago or more, I spent a great deal of time “under the Dome” of the British Library, housed then in the British Museum in Great Russell Street, where I would, before entering through the black wrought iron gates, pass the quarters where Arthur Machen once lived. I was in quest of rare decadent poetry. To get books, readers went to the great green directories listing the library’s holdings, which stood like ancient holy books in niches around the room. They hefted them out, turned their vast pages, and found the elusive title they wanted. They then copied out the particulars, including the all-important shelfmark, onto a white slip of paper, which manifested these also onto several carbon copies. These requests were then placed in a receptacle at a central desk.
Some time later, which might vary from fifteen minutes to several hours, the desired book might arrive on a wooden trolley, pushed with hushed ponderousness by an official in a grey tunic. Occasionally, instead of the book, the slip itself would waft on to the reader’s desk, informing them that the volume had been “destroyed by enemy action”, or, with less drama, that it was frail and must only be viewed in the North Gallery. In this ceremonial manner, which seemed always like the solemn ritual of some arcane sect – the Sandemanians, perhaps, or the Irvingites –I was able to handle such rare relics as the verses of Count Stenbock, the phantasmagoria of John Barlas, the chiaroscuro poems of Arthur A Piggot, or the pierrot plays of Eric Lyall. And provided that one could show the work was out of copyright, it was also possible to order photocopies of at least some of the pages in these delicate volumes. The copies would be posted to you, arriving perhaps a fortnight or so later.
This service was usually provided with considerable efficiency. But on one occasion, I received from the British Library an envelope which proved to contain a mystery: a copy I had not ordered. It had no doubt been mixed up with another reader’s request: they were perhaps puzzling at around the same time over the swooning effulgences that I must have been expecting. What I got instead was the final scene of King Lear.
I thought this was odd. Why would anyone need to order a copy of that, when the plays of Shakespeare may easily be found in countless editions? However, keen readers can rarely stop themselves from perusing any reading matter whatever, that happens to stop in front of them (I am myself an inveterate reader of notices). So I had a look at what I had mistakenly been sent. And then I was still more mystified. It all seemed rather amiable. The King, Gloucester and Kent exchanged cheery compliments and were apparently all set to wander off into the sunset together, arm in arm. I was not then as well-versed in Shakespeare as I might be, but I had formed the hazy impression that King Lear was a tragedy. Yet this didn’t seem all that melancholy.
What I had been sent, of course, was the finale of the “happy” version of the play composed by Nahum Tate in an adaptation of 1681 that rather bravely mingles his lines with Shakespeare’s. With a mind full of Machen’s theory of improbable coincidences, as evinced most notably in The Three Impostors, I naturally supposed that receiving this unexpected document must have some secret significance. Perhaps, I reflected, it was not after all just a mix-up. Maybe there was a furtive Tate admirer embedded among the staff of the great Library, who made it his business to send tantalising glimpses of the happy Lear to random readers. If so, they had found their mark. I am sorry to say that the sentimentalist in me found it rather touching. And there are worse watchwords for life than Lear’s last line.
Now, gentle Gods, give Gloster his Discharge.
No, Gloster, Thou hast Business yet for Life;
Thou, Kent and I, retir'd to some cool Cell
Will gently pass our short reserves of Time
In calm Reflections on our Fortunes past,
Cheer'd with relation of the prosperous Reign
Of this celestial Pair; Thus our Remains
Shall in an even Course of Thought be past,
Enjoy the present Hour, nor fear the Last.
Our drooping Country now erects her Head,
Peace spreads her balmy Wings, and Plenty Blooms.
Divine Cordelia, all the Gods can witness
How much thy Love to Empire I prefer!
Thy bright Example shall convince the World
(Whatever Storms of Fortune are decreed)
That Truth and Vertue shall at last succeed.
(from the online text edited by Jack Lynch of Rutgers University, Newark, with thanks)